Don Carlo by Giuseppe Verdi. On 16 April
'Don Carlo' is Verdi’s longest opera; an epic historical masterpiece. It is a production that is claimed to be the ultimate opera lovers’ opera; heavy, serious, tragic and confusing, yet beautifully composed with wonderful settings and a strong storyline. It is also Verdi’s most complex and orchestrally sensational production.
Lithuanian National Opera drags this gleaming yet somewhat weighty opera into the modern world which instantly makes it more accessible to audiences. Having only seen traditional versions, it is a relief to find a contemporary production in what has always been a marathon of an evening with four and a half hours of heavy, majestic score. Past versions may have been epic, but this streamlined new production really hits the mark.
German director Günter Krämer and set designer Herbert Schäfer are responsible for this modernisation of 'Don Carlo', shaving the opera down to make it less meandering and faster paced. Schäfer’s set designs are like explosions in a modern art gallery; bold, unafraid and dramatic. The huge number of heretics executed across Spain projected on to the stark bare wall is darkly effective and sinister.
Conductor and musical director Pierre Vallet set out to increase the tension and pace of the opera by making cuts in Verdi's majestic score whilst retaining the essence of the opera. Martynas Staškus conducts this neatly carved down score which still remains faithful to the dark beating heart of Verdi.
Essentially 'Don Carlo' contains a constant conflict between love and duty, the heart versus the rational and the personal versus political. The music shifts between tender tragic love duets and epic choral set pieces with its characters who are all bound together by blood or love. The lead performers were admirable in their dramatic acting as much as their sensational vocal ranges; Eric Fennell’s hopelessly torn Don Carlo, Raminta Vaicekauskaitė splitting the Heavens with her voice as Elisabeth and Eglė Šidlauskaitė’s Princess Eboli full of of tortured anguish and splintered pain. The stage might have been full but each character is completely alone, isolated in their own suffering in different ways.
It is always risky to stray from the traditional, but Lithuanian National Opera achieves a wonderful blend of Verdi’s dark and complicated orchestral score with strikingly modern twists. It is not an uplifting opera experience; it is immensely draining and challenging to watch but this does not take away its raw power. Without experimentation in art, there is no progress.
Kiára Árgenta, 2016 04 17
Carmen by Georges Bizet. On 6 April
Everyone wants to possess a free spirit; Carmen, the elusive gypsy girl who is cruel and careless, ruthless and sensual is freedom personified. So much of Carmen’s beauty lies in her personality as much as her dark smouldering appearance. There is nothing like the power of someone who loves and leaves, forever searching for the next victim, leaving a thousand weak-kneed men broken-hearted.
This is Don José’s failing as he too falls under Carmen’s dark spell. As his jealousy rises and possessiveness increases so too does Carmen’s boredom, those dark eyes already searching for the next excitement and love interest in the form of Escamillo the toreador, performed passionately by Fernando Araujo. Don José has lost everything in his life for love, following the gypsies across the mountains. He is in the grip of a fierce obsession which will shake and shake him until death.
Directed by Arnaud Bernard, Lithuanian National Opera’s Carmen grows from its tentative beginnings to a spectacular finale. The stage space and dark surroundings by set designer Alessandro Camera put me in mind of Les Misérables initially but gradually the drabness fell away revealing a sparkling inner core as the action progressed. Carmen doesn’t immediately dazzle; this is no showcase ballet but it evolves slowly to become something wonderful until it has reached the heights of perfection in Act 4.
Belgian tenor Michael Spadaccini performed the best Don José I have ever seen; his heartbreak in Act 4 in his final duet with Carmen in C’est toi, c’est moi is full of the finest acting to witness on the opera stage. He is living and breathing the role right down to the final moments. He knows he has lost but he begs and pleads his cruel Carmencita to return, his voice beautiful, haunting and hurt as it rises and fills the theatre space towards the heavens. If Spadaccini’s notes had colours, they would be pulsating arterial red.
Jovita Vaškevičiūtė as Carmen grew in stature and power as the opera progressed; from just a coarse gypsy girl into full-blooded smouldering sensuality in the finale where she stands clothed in red and black alone and unafraid outside the bullring in the final moments with Don José. She has seduced us too, snaked into our blood and cast her bewitching spell over the audience, her voice a tantalising velvety darkness.
There isn’t a note of the music which doesn’t cry out with meaning in Bizet’s beautiful masterpiece and this is what makes it for me, the finest opera ever. From the rousing Toreador Song and A deux cuartos! to the hauntingly beautiful prelude to Act 3, Robertas Šervenikas conducts the musical score which speaks of so much; passion, love, heartbreak, recklessness and ultimate tragedy.
Kiára Árgenta, 2016 04 08
La Boheme by Giacomo Puccini. On 1 April
Lithuanian National Opera’s production of Puccini's masterpiece is chiselled down to the essence of opera which is the haunting musical score, the pain, loneliness and eventual tragedy of love. This is achieved by the direction and concept of using visual projections directly on to the opera house walls by Cristina Mazzavillani Muti. With the visual designs by David Loom, the walls act as a giant canvas for Rodolfo's expressionist paintings; at times they seem to be swallowing up Rodolfo and Marcello in the echoing emptiness of their attic apartment.
It also effectively solves one of opera's main flaws; the scene changes. Shifting those heavy sets without interrupting the flow of the storyline is a constant dilemma. In La Bohème; moving from the confines of the attic room to the street scene changed with a flicker of light from Act 1 into Act 2 as though at the hands of an expert magician. After the tender love duet between Mimi and Rodolfo where love's sweet first taste effectively begins and ends, they are instantly transported into the Christmas swirl of Paris with the visual effects which cast wintry images across the minimalist stage set. The street scene was also carved down from the crowds and chaos that seem to characterise many productions of La Bohème; a relief when you are searching for the main protagonists amongst the ensemble on a cluttered set.
Viktorija Miškūnaitė lights the stage as a deliciously flirtatious Musetta. Joana Gedmintaitė is perfectly cast as fragile Mimi, at her most haunting in the swirling snow of Act 3 where she confides in Marcello of Rodolfo's jealousy. It is here where the musical score of Puccini spirals to the dizzying heights of heartbreak. Robertas Šervenikas conducts the orchestra through layer upon layer of pain, a dramatic circling score and libretto which both speak of the anguish of love. Love isn't sweet and delicate like those tender beginnings in the attic, but instead full of ever intensifying hurt, angst and irrationality.
The dynamic friendship between Rodolfo (Merunas Vitulskis) and Marcello (Dainius Stumbras) is played to perfection from the opening scene where they are agonising over their poverty through to Act 4 where jealousy reigns supreme. Musetta is an incorrigible flirt and Marcello cannot paint, Mimi too according to Rodolfo although this exists mainly in his own heart. The fire of jealousy burns with the intensity of a blazing inferno in the freezing attic apartment.
This is La Bohème as it should be. As director Alfred Hitchcock dressed his lovely glacial actresses in simple grey, so stripping the scenery away draws out the immense natural beauty of Puccini's opera.
Kiára Árgenta, 2016 04 03
BOLERO. On 31 March
The first two ballets, Things I told Nobody and Everywhere we Weren't are dramatic and dark in their post-modern apocalyptic landscapes. The overall feeling is jarring, unsettling yet undeniably haunting, setting the mood for the grand finale of the third ballet Bolero.
Things I told Nobody is harsh and angular, with fragments of musical score from Handel, Mozart, Vivaldi and Satie where duets of dancers dissolve into the wings and reappear, choreographed by Israeli Itzik Galili.
Everywhere we Weren't is set in an industrial echoing space and choreographed by Martynas Rimeikis. Essentially it plays on the themes of searching, of a restlessness, an unhappiness and an inability to live in the moment. A true reflection of contemporary existence, you might say.
But the showcase is Krzysztof Pastor's stunning Bolero, performed in the same echoing empty space of the stage as the first two ballet pieces. Despite the endless repetitive circles of Maurice Ravel's score, the music never seems dull and tired. It circles and crashes like waves of water, gathering pace, intensity and strength. Although Ravel himself saw the Bolero score as mechanical and repetitive, with images of factories in mind, many choreographers have interpreted the music as passionate, sensual and building to an intense finale. I always think of the ice dancers Torvill and Dean who achieved Olympic gold in 1984 with their interpretation of the haunting score as lovers who finally throw themselves into a volcano to avoid separation, their flesh melting into one.
Soloists Olga Konošenko and Kipras Chlebinskas have a smouldering chemistry on the set, the main players in a tidal wave of dancers moving effortlessly through the cavernous space. Konošenko is especially dramatic, radiating the smouldering sensuality of Carmen from the moment she steps on to the stage. Pastor rightly clothed the dancers in red to contrast with the stark surroundings; passion in an industrial wilderness. Modestas Barkauskas leads his orchestra through the ever increasing musical score with expertise as the lovers' ballet becomes more intense, full of elegant shapes stretching to maximum amplitude and expression. The finale could be death, passionate love or melting into that volcano, it is open to personal interpretation, but the overall feeling it leaves you with is one of beauty and completion.
Kiára Árgenta, 2016 04 03
Fidelio by Ludwig van Beethoven.
On 24 March
‘Fidelio’ is not an opera I can fall in love with. It is essentially fairly static; there are no dramatic scene changes or blazing, tempestuous love which burns itself into a tragic ending. The production’s power lies in Beethoven's score; musically it is sensational and the orchestra is the beating heart of this opera.
Rightly so, the orchestra are elevated from the pit into the centre of the stage by a simple yet effective set design by Gintaras Makarevičius. They are our narrators, with conductor Martynas Staškus passionately leading the musicians through the dark and urgent score. Beethoven’s music speaks out through dramatic notes what is unsaid by the characters themselves. It snakes into the protagonists’ thoughts and exposes out the innermost feelings that are not otherwise expressed.
Beethoven’s score speaks of tragedy, of darkness, of the dungeon Florestan is in, of the anguish in Leonore’s heart as she is told she must dig a grave for her beloved. This musical score softens and gently ghosts through lighter moments as well, particularly the comic touches in the early part of the opera.
Staging ‘Fidelio’ is always something of a directorial nightmare, but Oskaras Koršunovas does an admirable task of bringing the opera to the modern audience although it relies on our suspension of disbelief; Fidelio is actually a soprano in disguise, the plot has more fault-lines than Iceland running throughout and after the first act, there is always the feeling of wanting more pace and more action.
But the second act certainly delivers. In the power of the characters and their emotions, in the strength of Irena Zelenkauskaite’s Leonore, the tortured pain of Andrew Sritheran’ Florestan and politics aside, the eventual triumph of good over evil.
Despite never feeling an opera is complete unless the protagonists die or will die of a broken heart, the uplifting finale with the full chorus on stage has a powerful, celestial almost Wagnerian quality to it. After all, to die on stage is exhausting, to watch it sometimes equally so. Beethoven found the perfect balance between a saccharine ending and a mournfully tragic one and created a work of musical brilliance and compactness.
The real tragedy is this was to be Beethoven’s only opera.
FIDELIO. Co-production between LNOBT and Bergen National Opera
Next performance: 14th May (also returning in September season)
Kiára Árgenta, 2016 03 27
Lithuanian National Opera’s superb Manon. On 16 March
'Manon' is a sensual tragic opera with a haunting score and mesmerising storyline and herein lies its essence; what makes the 4 hour production so strong is the solid backbone of the plot which charts the fall of lovely yet somewhat anti-heroine Manon. Set alight by Jules Massenet's graceful and magical orchestral score, we are led on a journey into La Belle Epoque of Paris.
'Manon' is risky; it can fall desperately short if the chemistry between the two lovers is not absolutely believable; with the crackling chemistry between Manon and des Grieux, you have a masterpiece of the highest calibre. The emotions between the two leads were tangible, even when the stage consisted of the entire opera ensemble. French soprano Fabienne Conrad is the eponymous Manon, performing with full coquettish charm and fragility, Korean Ho-Yoon Chung as her lover, des Grieux is full of pain and anguish and Eugenijus Chrebtovas is perfectly cast as Manon's cousin, Lescaut.
Director Vincent Boussard has created a collaborative work of brilliance, also designing the elaborate traditional swirling costumes which sparkle on set designer Vincent Lemaire's modern minimalist stage. The set is stark, with its mirrored walls yet so effective as it focuses our attention on the opera itself.
Manon is a chameleon of a girl, twisting and turning constantly shifting her affections and personality. She is not entirely a victim of circumstance such as Madama Butterfly, so she has to work to gain our sympathy. Although events of Fate do play their part in her demise, it is Manon herself who makes those choices starting from innocent and naive girl through to greedy and frivolous, ever the enchantress, yet ruined and broken by the finale. What happens to Manon is undeniably tragic and by the opera's end, it would take a heart of beaten metal not to feel sadness for beautiful Manon dying in her lover's arms. Just as she has earned her forgiveness from des Grieux, so she has worked throughout this opera to win a place in our hearts.
Massenet's score is essentially the leading light which pulls us through the darkness of his opera in ever-increasing circles. Massenet has a feeling for tragedy like no other, perhaps at times even more so than that great puppeteer of emotions, Puccini. While Puccini shouts out tragedy with full-blooded Italian passion, Massenet is more subtle, quietly building layer upon gentle layer of pain. It is deceptive and delicate, just like Manon herself. Anyone who has seen Massenet's 'Werther' knows that despite the light-hearted moments and swirling music, there will be no escaping a tragic ending in 'Manon'. Conductor Cyril Diederich leads the orchestra effortlessly through Massenet's score as the 5 acts build up to a desolate finale.
The role of Manon demands an ever-growing personality, vocally and dramatically. As her character develops, so too does the depth of lead Fabienne Conrad; her voice commands the entire stage right down to her last mortal breath. Manon centres this opera; she is reckless, careless and greedy yet always so delicate, her sad notes of sorrow floating through the auditorium, seeming to linger before gently falling to the stage.
Lithuanian National Opera performed Massenet's masterpiece to perfection and as darkness falls on the two lovers alone in sorrow, there we must leave it.
'Et c'est là l'histoire de Manon Lescaut' as Manon whispers at the close of the opera.
2016 03 23
The Baltic Times